Theatre review: Looped

Holden Street Theatre Company brings one of Hollywood’s most outrageous divas to life, magically spinning a simple anecdote into a fascinating character portrait using razor-sharp wit, a brilliant script and captivating performances.

May 08, 2023, updated May 08, 2023
Martha Lott illuminates the depths beneath Tallulah Bankhead's outrageous exterior in Holden Street Theatre Company's production of 'Looped'. Photo: Rebekah Ryan / supplied

Martha Lott illuminates the depths beneath Tallulah Bankhead's outrageous exterior in Holden Street Theatre Company's production of 'Looped'. Photo: Rebekah Ryan / supplied

Tallulah Bankhead’s legend was far more impressive than her stage or screen credits. She smoked 120 cigarettes a day, flamboyantly indulged in drink and drugs, and took lovers across the gender spectrum. She had a wit that rivalled Dorothy Parker’s and her final words were “codeine… bourbon…”. Bankhead, or “Miss Tallulah”, was an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet her fame seemed to flow more from her notorious lifestyle than her onscreen talent.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo’s brilliant script for Looped takes an apocryphal tale about Bankhead’s final film and spins it into a mesmerising character portrait. Legend insists that the actor took eight hours to loop a single line of dialogue from the film, Die! Die! My Darling!

Set in a Los Angeles recording studio in the summer of 1965, the play centres on the conflict between the outrageous Tallulah (played by Martha Lott, founder and artistic director of Holden Street Theatres) and frustrated film editor Danny Miller (Chris Asimos). Filming has already wrapped. The director has left the state. All that is needed to complete the project is for Tallulah to record a single line for Danny to dub over the audio track of the film. It should take mere minutes.

It’s testament to the endlessly (and outrageously) witty script and the quality of the performances that the quest for the recording of this single line can take two acts and two hours of stage time and yet be mesmerising.

Bankhead barges into the studio, hours late, with an expletive on her lips and a fur coat around her shoulders, despite the LA heat. She is Hollywood glamour from head to toe, her diamonds and silk throwing the dingy mid-century studio furnishings into harsh juxtaposition.

The accents take a while to feel natural – Danny’s sharp LA twang less so than Tallulah’s challenging, smoke-ravaged southern drawl – but the lines they deliver while our ears attune made it worthwhile. If half the words coming out of Bankhead’s mouth are quotes, her caustic wit puts her on the same playing field as Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. The dialogue is razor-sharp; even in the most poignant moments, laughter is only a few beats away.

Martha Lott and Chris Asimos in Looped. Photo: Rebekah Ryan

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When it comes to depth of character and comic timing, Asimos and Lott are pitch-perfect. By the second act, they have the audience twisted around their little fingers. Asimos’s emotional trajectory from frustrated editor to bared soul is a skilful paring away of protective layers. And Lott’s Bankhead is a powerhouse illumination of the depths beneath her outrageous surface. The voice of Robert Cusenza completes the cast as the wry but unseen audio engineer, Steve.

Two-handed plays on a single set can be a challenge to direct, as it’s difficult to keep the actors using the whole stage in a way that feels unforced. Director and local legend Peter Goers has been subtle, allowing the performances to hold the spotlight, especially in the second act when the Danny’s frustration with Bankhead’s antics escalates to crisis point.

Liberally festooned with expletives, hilariously profane one-liners and drug references, this play is a delicious adults-only education in film and theatre history, allowing an unfairly neglected diva to step back into her spotlight. Looped is an outstanding production and a fitting way to both mark the 20-year anniversary of Holden Street Theatres and launch the bright, new Holden Street Theatre Company into the world. Don’t miss it.

Looped is playing at Holden Street Theatres until May 20.

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